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  6. Networking for success: Promoting women and diversity

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Networking for success: Promoting women and diversity

If you have one, you enjoy support, faster access to information, and a quick word of advice when needed. If you don’t have one, you have to soldier on alone. We’re talking about networks.

Hiltrud Werner, Volkswagen Group Board of Management Member for Integrity and Legal Affairs, also helps out

Many men are masterful at making contacts that could help them later on. They do this while having a smoke, standing around the coffee machine, eating lunch, or enjoying a beer after work. Sometimes referred to as “old-boy networks”, these mutually beneficial connections help them climb steep career paths, surmount obstacles, increase budgets, get raises and advance to higher positions. Corporation-wide networks help not only individuals, however, but also entire organizations – when different departments are all on board. Is there a blockage in the supply chain? It’s good to know someone in logistics or production planning who can help solve the problem.

What about women? It’s said they have a harder time with professional networks. Although they could use them all the more, since glass ceilings are seldom cracked by one person alone. So the Volkswagen Group is helping female employees throughout Germany network and advance by means of its management mentoring program. Every year up to 55 talented female employees are assigned a mentor from upper management, supported in targeted ways and also organize their own events – like helping to restore a marshland.

“Clearing Ground” Together

Managers head for the marshes with shovels, saws and loppers

It’s March, the spring sun shines on earthy brown and mossy green, and the cry of a heron is heard in the distance. Perfect weather for removing trees from the Großes Moor (literally “Great Bog”) near the town of Gifhorn in Lower Saxony. These up-and-coming female managers in the Volkswagen Group are cheerfully spending a day on a restoration project with the Nature and Biodiversity Conservation Union (NABU). “Timber!” shouts a young woman in outdoor gear who has just sawed through a pine tree. She laughs as the trunk lands on the damp ground with a muffled thud. Amid growing piles of trunks and branches, young managers from eight brands and companies in the Volkswagen Group tackle the job with saws, shovels and loppers. They’re engaged in Entkusselung, or removing trees and brash that draw water out of the marshes and thereby endanger the habitat of many animals and plants.  

Since I joined the Board, the number of female managers in my division has risen by ten percent.

Hiltrud Werner Volkswagen Group Board of Management Member for Integrity and Legal Affairs

“We should be doing this type of thing much more often!” says Hiltrud Werner, the Volkswagen Group Board of Management Member for Integrity and Legal Affairs. As the Board member who oversees the management mentoring program, she is here to spend time with the young women because she is committed to diversity and female advancement. “Since I joined the Board, the number of female managers in my division has risen by ten percent. Not because I actively favor women, but because I evaluate people based on their qualifications, achievements, and potential – not on whether they’re a man or a woman.”

It hasn’t always been easy. “When I as a Board member wanted to promote the first female employee to a management position who was working part-time after returning from her second parental leave, you can’t imagine the biases that came up. ‘She’ll always leave exactly at 5.’ Or ‘We won’t be able to rely on her.’ Or ‘Won’t that discourage all the good men?’ It was the same old story.” She goes on to note that many people in part-time positions work considerably more efficiently. They know they need to finish by 5 pm and therefore bring more focus to the job.

Wasted Potential

Shared achievements outside work – that forges ties

A lot has happened in Germany over the past 25 years. Women are pursuing careers more persistently, and facing fewer tough decisions around starting a family and maintaining their professional lives. But as Werner notes, “Many overqualified women work as office assistants or secretaries, or take positions below their levels on returning from parental leave – and in most cases are completely OK with that. A man wouldn’t do that.” Germany and Volkswagen have some catching up to do. “That’s wasted potential,” she says. “We’re losing knowledge that way.”

How can a mentoring program help? “It ensures they get opportunities – it’s not a matter of training women, because they’re often already highly qualified.” But frequently what’s lacking is that last bit of self-confidence – which they need in order to get positions commensurate with their abilities. Werner gives an example from her own experience. “When I was still at another company, the head of the public relations department was leaving. A female employee was asked if she wanted to take the position, and everyone said they were confident she could do it, including the CEO and the CFO, but she herself said, ‘I’m not so sure.’ So what we’re talking about is this sense of certainty.”  

Diversity Means More Than Advancing Women

This is what the management mentoring program addresses. Now in its fourth year, it was launched and is supervised by the team in charge of diversity and female advancement (Team Diversity und Frauenförderung). As program head Karen Harland explains, “It combines mentoring with various seminars and initiatives, plus networking among the women of course, who come from different divisions, member companies and brands.” The idea is to bring more women into management, and the program seeks to significantly increase the percentage of women. “The current trend, however, is away from programs that focus solely on women and toward more diversity in general in the Group,” says Harland.

The management mentoring program will be adapted to new HR developments in the future. Board Member Werner is looking forward to that. She has a lot of experience working in diverse environments. “We had 39 sites at Group Audit, and half the female and male managers had non-German backgrounds, which was completely normal for me. We have to bring a little of that normality into Group headquarters as well.”

Mutual Understanding in the Group

In the marshland the piles of trunks and branches are growing higher. The young female managers were the ones who initiated this Entkusselung or ground-clearing project. The original idea came from Brenda Klein at Audi Corporate Planning. She thinks very highly of the mentoring program, not least of all on account of the networking. “It really makes your work easier. If I need information on driverless cars, for example, I can just give someone a quick call.”

If I need information on driverless cars, for example, I can just give someone a quick call.

Brenda Klein from Audi Corporate Planning on the benefits of a network

Board Member Hiltrud Werner is also visibly pleased with the event. “Just look at all these happy faces!” she says. It’s a good idea to achieve something together and make contacts outside actual working environments. “That promotes mutual understanding within the Group, and helps us move forward,” says Werner, who is actively clearing the ground herself. “If a sales manager here can discuss a problem with a colleague from production planning, that opens new horizons and helps counteract a certain silo mentality.”

A large pine tree becomes the object of joint efforts. “It didn’t really look that hard,” pants one of three young managers who first cut off the branches and then set to work on the trunk. “I’d say we’ve done our part for team-building today,” remarks Werner when the tree finally falls to the ground.

When Brands Learn from Each Other

A few meters away Nina Boesch from Audi Production and Logistics is digging out the roots of a young birch. “Shared projects like this one today are great, because we get to know each other. And when you know people in your profession, that often makes your life a lot easier.” They also learn a lot about the other brands.

“I wouldn’t have thought networking could be so important,” says Ann-Kristin Hunstiger from Volkswagen Financial Services. “And let’s be honest, when you’re told you can take part in a program to advance women, you first wonder whether that reflects well on you.” She smiles, and now sees the benefits. “There are topics you don’t talk about otherwise, like how to combine your career and your private life. You can do that in a network. Now it’s easier for me to deal with certain things, and to talk about them with others.”

“I’m benefiting a lot from the mentoring system,” says Linn Hackenberg from Volkswagen Electronics Development. As she explains, “You can get feedback in a hierarchy-free zone. Because your direct responsibilities play less of a role, it’s easier to get straight opinions and different perspectives.” It was inspiring for her to talk about children, for example. “I’m a mother, and so is my mentor. We can exchange ideas about that. The top manager also takes one afternoon off a week to do things with her kids.” Hackenberg thinks networks are helpful for developing careers in many ways – and is sure they’ll be of use in the future.  

You can get feedback in a hierarchy-free zone.

Linn Hackenberg from Volkswagen Electronics Development on the mentoring program
René Hertwig from NABU explains the main points of the ground-clearing action

As the sun drops to the horizon, a good part of the marshland has been cleared. René Hertwig from NABU thanks the energetic group for its help. The up-and-coming mangers will return to their everyday jobs the next day. But for now, they have not only done the environment a favor, but have also gotten to know each other better and developed contacts. Hiltrud Werner is satisfied as well. She wants to give her charges a piece of advice for the road that she heard from her own mentor at BMW around 20 years ago:“A round stone will roll downhill. Don’t lose your rough edges!” This might be all the more important for women who pursue careers.